I’m playing a game. It’s the type of game that only pandemic-induced isolation can trigger. Think Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but in a smaller house and with no family to terrorise. Step 1: I pluck a ‘quintessentially Australian’ figure from the pages of history. Step 2: I imagine how they would react to a law or regulation in Australia today.
Before my eyes, Ned Kelly gets hauled off in a paddy wagon for not wearing a regulation polycarbonate bike helmet. Errol Flynn finds himself ‘in’ a lecture on #MeToo. Bob Hawke gets cut off halfway through his beer. Dawn Fraser is doing 25-to-life for nicking a flag. And Barry Humphries is watching Twitter immolate him for making comments about transgender people (oh wait).
Two thoughts come to mind watching this pandemic unfold. First, if I could get my hands on the bloke who ate that bat. Second, Australia has a cognitive dissonance problem. Cognitive dissonance is one of those pseudo-intellectual theories thrown around by pop-psychologists who haven’t bothered to read the original 1957 book by Leon Festinger. Cognitive dissonance occurs when your beliefs or behaviours contradict each other, leading to psychological stress. The theory goes that people will do everything in their power to change their beliefs or behaviours to make them consistent and reduce feelings of discomfort. It’s the animal rights activist who still has a cheeky bet on the Melbourne Cup because it’s only once a year. And it’s the larrikin country that is run like a nanny-state, but still hasn’t worked out how to address the guilt.
What has Australia always believed? There are threads running through the Australian psyche that everyone without a preferred pronoun in their Twitter bio can agree upon. From the first convict to jump off HMS Sirius to the wordsmith who coined the ‘sickie’, we’ve always had a suspicion of authority. We’ve long believed in the power of ‘no worries’, to the point that our second longest-serving prime minister made being ‘relaxed and comfortable’ an election-winning vision. Irreverence has permeated the poetry of Banjo Patterson, the speeches of Billy Hughes and the stories told at Australian pubs for over a century. Finally, we have always embraced larrikinism, a word that is hard to define but sits alongside ‘hard-core pornography’ in Justice Stewart’s ‘I know it when I see it’ club.
We still say we believe these things. Young men don’t just flock to Anzac Day Dawn Services ‘lest they forget’. They go because they still associate with the romanticised Aussie Digger. Tourism Australia doesn’t relapse back to Crocodile Dundee to keep our plastic surgeons in business. They do it because the Aussie larrikin still sells. And politicians don’t use jarring, Australian slang in their lounge room. They use it on our television screens because they think it will resonate with you and me. And they’re right. You may not get a word out of the ‘quiet Australians’, but you’d get a nod of agreement when ascribing anti-authoritarianism, a laid-back attitude, irreverence and larrikinism to the Australian national identity.
The national response to the coronavirus has highlighted the tension between our institutional behaviours and who we feel we are as Australians. From police officers fining L-Platers without reasonable cause to premiers enacting ‘bonking bans’ and the media often waving these types of measures through with little scrutiny, this tragedy has highlighted a worrying systemic instinct. And the cognitive dissonance didn’t just bubble up out of bat soup. Anti-authoritarian? Just speak to a Londoner and they’ll tell you it’s not a big deal drinking a pint on the footpath. Or an Amsterdammer and they’ll tell you it’s up to them if they want to wear a bicycle helmet, dankjewel. Relaxed? Australia is the second highest per-capita consumer of antidepressants in the world. Irreverent? 68 per cent of Australians think political correctness has gone too far… and that was an ABC survey! And larrikinism risks joining toy trucks and Gillette’s marketing standards as another casualty of the Left’s war on ‘toxic masculinity’.
The real danger is not the nanny. The danger is the nanny wearing an Akubra, telling you ‘she’ll be right, mate’. The cognitive dissonance between Australia’s identity and its institutional behaviours has three profoundly dangerous implications. First, it masks bad public policy. Leaders have a perverse incentive to limit transparency if they are worried about the biggest branding iron in the current affairs reporter’s toolkit – being ‘un-Australian’. Second, it makes us less proud to be Australian. In the same way a person feels shame or anxiety following prolonged cognitive dissonance, we collectively feel ill at ease with our shared values and history every time they are contradicted by our leaders. But the most insidious threat of all is how it makes us complacent as our liberty is stripped away one regulation at a time. It’s easier to accept a mid-strength beer at the cricket when Tim Paine is talking about mateship in the pre-match interview. We tolerate the pub closing early because we can convince ourselves Australia is otherwise a fun and relaxed place to live. We’ll even pay a fine in NSW for walking more than four dogs at one time because it’s surely too silly to be emblematic of a deeper malaise. One can only wonder how many drovers stopped to consider the risk of petty fines before getting their dogs in times gone by?
Psychologists say that we respond to cognitive dissonance by shying away from conversations that go against their existing beliefs. A country will do the same thing. Take the failure to repeal s.18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. All the cognitive dissonance elements were there: a belief (Australia stands for freedom of speech), the contrary action (18C should not be repealed) and the response to handle the psychological stress (a collective, ‘well, it isn’t that big a deal’).
The erosion of liberty in Australia has not been virally transmitted. We have let it happen, all the while comforting ourselves by imagining a larrikin nation that we are unaware is fading into history. It’s cognitive dissonance on a mass scale and it threatens our public policy, our patriotism and our freedom. As Australia lies on the psychologist’s couch, it faces the same choice we’ve all had in moments of cognitive dissonance. Do we change our beliefs or do we change our actions? If you asked Ned in the paddy wagon, or Hawkey outside the pub, I’ve got no doubt the answer you’d get. After all, they just told me.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10